Beth Clarke: It’s lonely at the top - let’s support those leading small charities

02 Jul 2018 Expert insight

Beth Clarke, programme manager at Charities Aid Foundation, says that the time invested in the people parts of leadership roles in a small charity are often vastly overlooked.

If I asked you to tell me what a small charity chief executive does, my guess is that you would list a range of tasks from income generation to reporting to risk management. Depending on how familiar you are with the challenges of small charities you might include service delivery, administration and answering the phone.  

It’s well known that small charity chief executives are required to wear many hats and hold many responsibilities that those in a larger charity would rarely get involved in.

In a recent conversation with the leader of a small charity I asked how their typical week might be split into areas of work. After they listed the tangible tasks they said in frustration "I know there’s so much more I do but right now I can’t even think what it is".

When we unpacked this together, the things that were missing from their list were the intangible responsibilities – those related to leadership and relationship building. These don’t sit as neatly on a to-do list and it’s more difficult to know when they’ve been achieved. 

For instance, they could be the time spent with staff and volunteers, listening to them, allaying their concerns, cheerleading their successes and allowing frontline staff to express their feelings about the difficult and complex situations they work in.

Through our advisory work we’ve noticed that the time invested in the people parts of leadership roles in a small charity are often vastly overlooked. Especially by those who aren’t involved in the day to day, such as funders and even sometimes Boards. These softer skills need to be recognised when we think about the role that these leaders have.

'Carry the emotional weight'

Chief executives in these organisations tend to carry the emotional weight of the collective staff team. In the absence of a group of senior leaders, they can often be the glue that holds a small charity together.  

In a large charity, roles tend to be more strictly defined. This isn’t the same in small charities – which might be organisations with ten staff, many of who are not full time. In this kind of set up, the chief executive is likely to be one of the key people picking up the responsibility for maintaining morale. They’re also the very visible face of the charity when people are unhappy or unsettled by change.  

Small charities experience plenty of changes and staff can be affected by these. Even positive changes such as new employees or systems upgrades require just as much managing as grappling with negatives ones such as staff illness or redundancy. One small charity chief executive I worked with recently noted that if you don’t manage staff anxiety about change then nothing gets done.

If you lead a small charity it’s easy to get consumed in the day-to-day delivery of services. But it’s so important that you recognise the important part you play in leading your team, and to make time for it. 

Through our work with small charity leaders we know that maintaining staff morale (and often volunteers too) while being the one that drives the organisation forward is very challenging. That’s why we’re also working with donors, funders and others in the sector to share our learning. We want far more investment to go into supporting small charities and their leaders to have the time and space to make strategic changes and lead their organisations.

Beth Clarke is programme manager, CAF Resilience at Charities Aid Foundation.

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